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Cochlear implants open deaf kids' ears to the world

The technology is 'close to a miracle,' a psychologist says. Can it work for little Tyler de Lara?

August 03, 2009|Shari Roan

Tyler de Lara, 2, thrashes on a gurney, tangled in his sheet, hospital gown and IV tubing. A white bandage encircles his head and, loosened by his squirming, slips down and covers his eyes.

All that shows is a tuft of black hair and his mouth, set in an angry pout.

Dr. Akira Ishiyama notes Tyler's grimace and says he's pleased. It means there is no facial nerve damage.

Tyler was diagnosed as deaf six months earlier. Now, on an autumn morning at UCLA's outpatient surgery center -- after several misdiagnoses, battles with insurance companies and much worry and waiting -- he is drifting from a cloud of anesthesia with two cochlear implants nestled in his skull.

His parents, Michael and Marieta, hope he can finally enter the world of those who speak and hear.

One or two of every 1,000 U.S. children are born profoundly deaf, numbers that have not changed for decades. What is changing -- at an unprecedented pace -- is the number of those children under 3 who are receiving cochlear implants, electronic devices that mimic the function of delicate cells of the inner ear.

About 40% of such children now receive a cochlear implant, up from about 25% five years ago. Medicaid and most private insurers will pay for at least one implant, and the number of deaf children who receive one or even two is projected to rise still further.

Cochlear implants have long been endorsed for adults. But studies published in the last two years have delivered what many experts say is ironclad evidence that the devices are safe in babies and toddlers and allow most children to develop spoken language without extensive occupational therapy.

"It used to be a big decision, a big, bold move," says Efrat A. Schorr, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland. "It's not anymore. It's become the standard of care for children with profound hearing loss."

Before implants, deaf children learned American Sign Language or lip reading. Most fared exceedingly well, although many could not speak. Like the De Laras, however, many families whose children receive implants today are dissuaded from learning sign language, a trend that will bear repercussions for the entire deaf community and that some experts fear is a mistake.

Tyler's generation, hearing experts say, will redefine what it means to be deaf.

"I describe it as a revolution," Schorr says. "It's close to a miracle, what this technology has made possible."

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Designed for people who are deaf or have little hearing, cochlear implants were first developed in the 1970s. The device consists of a headset that is removable and a piece that is surgically implanted. A microphone-speech processor the size of a hearing aid is hooked over the ear to process sounds, which are then sent to a transmitter the size of a quarter that adheres to the head, just behind the ear, with a magnet.

A receiver implanted inside the skull picks up signals and sends messages to electrodes inserted inside the inner ear -- stand-ins for the tiny hair cells that, in the majority of deaf people, are damaged. The message moves on to the brain.

Tyler was to get two implants, one on each side of his head.

"We just want him to hear," says his father, Michael, 38, a registered nurse, on an October day at the couple's town house in Harbor City. "We want him to be independent."

It is one week before Tyler's surgery. The boy stands on a chair and pounds on an electric keyboard -- an activity that puzzles his parents. Marieta, 39, who quit nursing school when Tyler was diagnosed, guesses that some sliver of the racket he is making can penetrate his brain.

Ninety percent of deaf children, like Tyler, are born to hearing parents. A nationwide embrace of programs to screen newborns and flag those with hearing problems before they leave the hospital has meant such babies are identified at increasingly younger ages: at an average of two to three months, compared with 2 1/2 to 3 years in 1990.

Some, like Tyler, slip through the cracks. The results of his exam -- which came up normal -- were either erroneous or he lost his ability to hear later on.

By age 1, Tyler was still a silent child. The De Laras were suspicious that their son wasn't hearing. His pediatrician said not to worry: Boys are usually late talkers.

One day, shortly after Tyler's first birthday, Michael grabbed two pans and slammed them together a few feet from where his son was sitting. Tyler didn't flinch.

An audiologist told the couple Tyler had some hearing loss and recommended aids. The couple paid $5,000 for top-of-the-line models. Tyler, almost 2 when the devices arrived, hated wearing them. One time he pulled them apart in his car seat, scattering the pieces all over the back of Marieta's car.

"That Christmas, we were so depressed and hopeless," Marieta says.

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